, Heritage writer
It’s not every day a first lady visits a Kaiser facility, but it happened in the middle of World War II – and she visited two.
Eleanor Roosevelt came to the Kaiser Company shipyard on the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington to personally launch the U.S.S. Casablanca, the first in a new class of small, versatile and inexpensive aircraft carriers.
The class was named for the Battle of Casablanca, fought November 8-12, 1942, where the U.S. Navy fought vessels under the control of Nazi-occupied France. The 50 ships the Kaiser yards produced comprised almost a third of the American carriers built during the war and were launched in less than two years.
The ship was known as the Alazon Bay while under construction and renamed the U.S.S. Casablanca two days before she slid down the ways on April 5, 1943. Five of the “baby flattops” were sunk in action during the war, and none survive today.
Health care, not warfare
But Eleanor wasn’t just there for the latest in military technology. She was more interested in the social programs affiliated with the massive shipbuilding projects, including child care, prepared meals for double-duty women, and health care.
Henry J. Kaiser listened to her and responded by introducing two controversial (at the time) programs for shipyard workers – model child care facilities near two of the shipyards and pre-cooked meals for working moms.
As for health care, Mr. Kaiser needed no convincing. Mrs. Roosevelt was given a grand tour of the state-of-the-art Northern Permanente Foundation Hospital built in September, 1942 for the shipyard workers.
Eleanor wrote a regular newspaper column, “My Day.” Her April 7, 1943, entry included this reflection on the Portland visit:
A little after 9:00 o’clock Monday morning we were met in Portland, Ore., by Mr. Henry J. Kaiser and his son Mr. Edgar Kaiser. A group of young Democrats presented me with a lovely bunch of red roses at the airport and then we were whisked off for a busy day.
Our first tour was in the Kaiser shipyard itself. It is certainly busy and businesslike. Everything seems to be in place and moving as quickly as possible along a regular line of production. I was particularly interested in the housing, so I was shown the dormitories and then the hospital, which is run on a species of health cooperative basis costing the employees seven cents a day. It looked to me very well-equipped and much used, but I was told there were few accidents in the shipyards owing to safety devices. The men come in for medical care and some surgery and their families are also cared for…
The ship went safely down the ways at the appointed time and was duly christened. It was interesting and impressive to see all the workers and their families gathered together for the occasion and I felt there was a spirit of good workmanship in this yard.
Mrs. Roosevelt was so intrigued with the new medical care program that she wrote Permanente’s founding physician, Dr. Sidney R. Garfield, who happened to be away at the time of her visit. “What is your plan for preventive care?” she asked.
“This is the solution of medical care for the majority of people in this country”
Dr. Sidney Garfield replied in a letter May 25, 1943, in which he took the opportunity to explain how aligned the first lady’s vision was with that of the Permanente Health Plan:
I regret very much not to have been present during your recent visit to Vancouver, Washington, and not to have had the opportunity of showing you through our medical facilities and hospitals in the Oakland-Richmond, California area.
Your expression of interest in preventive medicine is rather closely allied with our thoughts for medical care. Mr.Kaiser and I believe that preventive medicine is more important than the curative side. Our medical programs have always been developed with this fact in mind…
Because of the economy of such a medical plan the cost of medical care to the people is lowered. For the small amount charged at Coulee Dam we were able to provide the best of medical care and pay for the hospital facilities provided in a period of four years. When the cost ofthe facilities is paid for the charge per week to the people can be reduced, or the money used to provide more facilities, added equipment, and for research. Mr. Kaiser and all of us who have had a part in these programs feel that this is the solution of medical care for the majority of people in this country. It is self-sustaining and unites the medical profession, the employer and employee all in one common objective – “to keep the people well and to prevent their illness.”
Your interest in our organization is greatly appreciated. If we can be of further service in answering your questions please do not hesitate to call on us.
Sidney R. Garfield, M.D.
Medical Director, Kaiser Co., Inc., West Coast Shipyards
Years later, Eleanor Roosevelt’s light would shine on KP again.
In 2007 Kaiser Permanente was one of three recipients of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award from American Rights at Work, an advocacy and public policy organization responsible for promoting and defending workers’ rights since 2003. Kaiser Permanente received the award for “creating a management-union partnership based on mutual trust and respect.”
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, Heritage writer
In the fall of 1942, thousands of New York area workers boarded Kaiser Shipyards recruiting trains in Hoboken, New Jersey, heading for Oregon. Around the same time, thousands of job seekers were catching trains from the South and the Midwest bound for Richmond, California. Still others uttered a hopeful prayer as they started up their jalopies or farm trucks and headed west. Looking to change their lives for the better, the skilled and unskilled took a chance that the West Coast dream was not an illusion.
They were leaving their hometowns where recovery from the Great Depression was elusive. If they had jobs, the pay was low. Many were deep in debt and saw higher pay in the World War II shipyards as a way to heal their ailing finances. Some were young and saw no future or excitement in their native states.
Individuals were desperately needed to build ships to help win the war. So it didn’t matter whether you were black or white or Asian or Hispanic – or if you had skills and experience. You could learn on the job, and if you did well, you could improve your position and pay. You didn’t even have to be healthy and strong – and many weren’t. You could seek medical care at the shipyards, and you could purchase the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, affordable comprehensive, prepaid health care for yourself and your family.
The shipyard life wasn’t all hearts and flowers. Worker housing was inadequate, and communities were overwhelmed with newcomers. But for many workers, migration to the West Coast opened up a new, optimistic world.
Mississippi mother of 11 becomes shipyard welder
Lucille Preston, reared in Clarkesdale, Mississippi (near Memphis, Tennessee), is a case in point. She first went to work on a plantation at age 12 or 13 babysitting for the wealthy owner’s children. Eventually, she cooked for the family every day and served at their elaborate parties. The generous family hosted her wedding when she married a man whose parents worked for the same prominent family.
When the couple’s six child was on the way, Preston’s husband, Willie, caught the California bug. “My husband just came home one evening and said that there was work in Richmond, California. ‘They’re opening up the Kaiser Shipyard, and I would like to go.’ So I said: ‘Why sure,’ ” Preston told Judith K. Dunning, oral history interviewer for a Bancroft Library project in 1985.*
Willie sent for Lucille when he got an apartment in the war housing. She set out for Richmond on a train, eight months pregnant, carrying her one-year-old with the other four clinging to her skirt. On the platform, a kind conductor shepherded Lucille and her brood through the crushing crowd onto a car bound for California. From El Paso, Texas, to Richmond, Lucille stood holding the baby while the other children settled at the feet of nearby passengers.
At Richmond, the Prestons settled in their new home, Lucille gave birth and a month later she was working graveyard at the shipyards and learning how to weld. Willie worked swing shift so the two took turns at parenting. The couple had five more children over the next decade. After the war, Lucille operated a dress-uniform press at Treasure Island where she worked for 20 years.
Lucille told Dunning her only regret was that the expense of raising eight sons and three daughters kept her from building her dream house. However, most of her children went to college – one daughter has two master’s degrees –and they all have successful careers.
Government helps young men launch shipyard careers
Getting to California from other parts of the country seemed a pipe dream for many would-be welders. Kaiser Shipyard recruiters fronted train fare for many who came across the country with nothing. Workers could pay back the loan when they got their paychecks. For young men 16 to 24, the federal National Youth Administration (NYA), established by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1935, collaborated with the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards to make the impossible dream possible.
The NYA paid for transportation to California. Once in Richmond, the young men were welcomed at the Richmond War Work Residence Center where they lived in dormitories and received two to four weeks of welder training. The pay for a month was $33.30, minus $22.50 for meals, dental and medical care, work clothes and equipment. After the initial period of “confusion, bewilderment and expense,” the men were placed in shipyard jobs, according to the Richmond Shipyard newsletter “Fore ‘N Aft.” By April 1943, the project had placed 1,500 welders in Richmond yards.
Diversity reigns in the shipyards
Throughout the war years, the West Coast shipyards attracted all kinds of people from all over the globe. There were actors, writers, lawyers, cowboys, farmers, housewives, shopkeepers, and doctors. Some were experienced at building ships and others had never seen one.
Here’s how the “Fore ‘N Aft” described the work force in April 1944: “We are all kinds of people, as you can tell by listening to us – Texas twang and Brooklyn brogue, down east Yankee and Carolina drawl, along with almost every language on earth from Polish to Swedish, from Syrian to Italian. It takes all kinds of people to build ships, just as it took all kinds to build America. Shoulder to shoulder, we’ll come through together.”
*Lucille Preston, “A World War II Journey: From Clarkesdale, Mississippi, to Richmond, California, 1942,” an oral history conducted in 1985 by Judith K. Dunning, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1992.